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Word Choice

The February 19th issue of Jinja Shinpō devoted most of the front and back pages to events celebrating National Foundation Day, February 11th. This is the solar calendar date of the mythical accession of Jinmu Tennō on the first day of lunisolar 660 BC. I have been closely involved in one of the events for several years — the central event to celebrate the day, held at Meiji Jingū by a group that is technically different from Jinja Honchō, but run out of their offices. As I know, after translating the keynote speech every year, National Foundation Day became a national holiday early in the Meiji Period, was abolished by the occupying forces after WWII, and reinstated in 1966. 

It would be fair to describe this as a very right-wing and nationalist event, although almost all the ambassadors in Tokyo are invited, and a couple of dozen attend or send representatives every year. That creates my main job — to provide English liaison and interpretation for the diplomatic corps. In my experience, this sort of combination is normal. The attitude of contemporary jingoistic right-wing Japanese nationalists to foreigners is usually “We are wonderful and unique. Please come and see how wonderful and unique we are. Please sit here and we will bring wonderful and unique Japanese food and demonstrate wonderful and unique Japanese cultural practices”. It is nationalistic and othering, but it is certainly more pleasant for visiting foreigners than the way some countries do it.

One part of the celebration is a parade along Omotësandō, one of the main upscale shopping streets in Tokyo, to Meiji Jingū. The parade involves about a dozen university marching bands, about a dozen mikoshi, and a kindergarten marching band. This, unsurprisingly, draws attention, and people who happen to be in Omotësandō (and because it is a national holiday, there are normally a lot of them) stop to watch it and take photographs. This is reported in Jinja Shinpō as part of the report of the event.

The point of this post is part of that description this year. After describing how lots of people stopped to take photographs and wave the Japanese flags that were being handed out, it went on to say “many people who looked like foreign tourists were also taking photographs and videos, and watching with great interest”.

It is undeniably true that someone who looks like a foreign tourist (because they are not Asian) might actually live round the corner and be a Japanese citizen, and even so would probably stop to photograph the parade, because pretty much everyone does. However, it is also undeniably true that virtually everyone on Omotësandō who looks like a foreign tourist is a foreign tourist. It is one of the main tourist spots in Tokyo, to the extent that on most days quite a lot of the people who look like Japanese residents are actually foreign tourists.

The choice of phrasing, then, means that the editorial staff (and probably the writers) at Jinja Shinpō think that it is worth using a slightly awkward expression to avoid reinforcing the easy assumption that black/brown/white people in Japan are foreign tourists. That sort of concern to avoid racial stereotyping would normally be left-wing and progressive, even “woke”, in the west. This is yet another example of the way in which western assumptions about political alignments do not map easily onto Japan.

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